Contract Attorney Salary New York

A Lawyer and Partner, and Also Bankrupt

Mr. Owens is an extreme but vivid illustration of the economic factors roiling the legal profession, although his straits are in some ways unique to his personal situation.

The bulk of his potential liabilities stem from claims related to the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. Even stripping those away, his financial circumstances seem dire. Legal fees from a divorce depleted his savings and resulted in a settlement under which he pays his former wife a steep $10, 517 a month in alimony and support for their 11-year-old son.

But in other ways, Mr. Owens’s situation is all too emblematic of pressures facing many partners at big law firms. After Dewey & LeBoeuf collapsed, Mr. Owens seemingly landed on his feet as a partner at White & Case. But he was a full equity partner at Dewey, Ballantine and Dewey & LeBoeuf. At White & Case, he was demoted to nonequity or “service” partner — a practice now so widespread it has a name, “de-equitization.”

Nonequity partners like Mr. Owens are not really partners, but employees, since they do not share the risks and rewards of the firm’s practice. Service partners typically have no clients they can claim as their own and depend on rainmakers to feed them. In Mr. Owens’s case, his mentor and protector has long been Morton A. Pierce, a noted mergers and acquisitions specialist and prodigious rainmaker whom Mr. Owens followed from the former Reid & Priest to Dewey, Ballantine to Dewey & LeBoeuf and then to White & Case.

“It’s sad to hear about this fellow, but he’s not alone in being in jeopardy, ” said Thomas S. Clay, an expert on law firm management and a principal at the consulting firm Altman Weil, which advises many large law firms. “For the past 40 years, you could just be a partner in a firm, do good work, coast, keep your nose clean, and you’d have a very nice career. That’s gone.”

Mr. Clay noted that there was a looming glut of service partners at major firms. At the end of 2012, he said, 84 percent of the largest 200 law firms, as ranked by the trade publication American Lawyer, had a class of nonequity or service partners, 20 percent more than in 2000. And the number of nonequity partners has swelled because firms have been reluctant to confront the reality that, in many cases, “they’re not economically viable, ” Mr. Clay said.

Photo Pedestrians outside the Dewey & LeBoeuf firm in New York as it neared bankruptcy in 2012. Credit Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Scott A. Westfahl, professor of practice and director of executive education at Harvard Law School, agreed that service partners faced mounting pressures. “Service partners need a deep expertise that’s hard to find anywhere else, ” he said. “Even then, when demand changes, and your specialty is no longer hot, you’re in trouble. There’s no job security.” He added that even full equity partners were feeling similar pressures as clients demanded more accountability. “Partners are being de-equitized, ” he said, as Mr. Owens was. “That’s a trend.”

Mr. Owens specializes in financing and debt structuring in mergers and acquisitions, a relatively narrow expertise where demand rises and falls with the volume of merger and acquisition deals that his mentors generate. Former colleagues (none of whom would speak for attribution) uniformly described him as a highly competent lawyer in his specialty and, as several put it, “a lovely person” who relishes spending time with his son. But he does not seem to be the kind of alpha male — or female — who can generate revenue, bring in clients and are generally prized by large law firms.

At Dewey & LeBoeuf, Mr. Owens’s name was perennially among a group of partners who were not making enough revenue to cover their salaries and overhead, according to two former partners at the firm. But each time, the powerful Mr. Pierce, then the firm’s vice chairman, protected Mr. Owens, they said.

“He was very good at what he knew, ” a former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner said. “But he wasn’t built to adapt. To make it as a law firm partner today, you have to periodically reinvent yourself.”

As partners were leaving Dewey & LeBoeuf in droves as it neared bankruptcy in 2012, Mr. Pierce went to White & Case. Mr. Owens followed, but this time as a salaried lawyer, not an equity partner, even though he has the title of partner.

A spokesman for White & Case said Mr. Owens and Mr. Pierce had no comment. Neither did the firm.

Mr. Owens has been well paid by most standards, but not compared with top partners at major firms, who make in the millions. (Mr. Pierce was guaranteed $8 million a year at Dewey & LeBoeuf.) When Mr. Owens first became a partner at Dewey, Ballantine, he made about $250, 000, in line with other new partners. At Dewey & LeBoeuf, his income peaked at over $500, 000 during the flush years before the financial crisis. In 2012, he made $351, 000, and last year, while at White & Case, he made $356, 500. He listed his current monthly income as $31, 500, or $375, 000 a year. And he has just over $1 million in retirement accounts that are protected from creditors in bankruptcy.

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